Sunday, July 10, 2011

Exorcism's Daughter (1971)

The title is misleading: not only is this not an Exorcist rip off, but it was actually made before the Exorcist and only released in the US in 1974 in an attempt to cash in on William Friedkin’s horror masterpiece. Its alternative title, “House of the Insane Women” is more accurate- it is about a nineteenth century Spanish mental asylum for insane women. The staff are worn out and mistreat the patients horribly, beating and insulting them and even pimping out some of the nutzo nymphs to a local bug-eyed pervert who enjoys the occasional loony bin orgy.

Into this dysfunctional family comes a new doctor Alba who is more in the Enlightenment mold and promises the prisoners that “the time of the straightjacket is over”, arousing their hopes to be treated, “like a human being” as they chant in a dreamlike celebration scene. The slow-mo sequence evokes the dream of liberty and its terror as well, justifying the film’s existence. There are other lovely sequences, including a madwoman lying in the rain and a paranoid in a church belfry mistaking a bell for a severed head in a direct echo of Vertigo’s bell-tower sequence. As in most of the Spanish exploitation films of this era, there are plenty of gorgeous stone castles lit by torches.

The story pits the Enlightened Doctor against the local Catholic establishment, who see his methods as being akin to witchcraft. He focuses his efforts on healing Tanya, a childlike paranoid with a dark secret in her past (psst: she’s the daughter of the exorcism subject, hence the title). Naturally, there are conflicts; the old guard bitches, “Everything’s prohibited! Ya can’t hit ‘em, dunk ‘em, nothing!” The townspeople, predictably, are convinced instead that he’s fucking the patients. The local heiress is trying to blackmail him into fucking her. And, what do ya know- he’s falling in love with Tanya! Before long, he’s siding with the lunatics against the sane society outside.

The movie is a solid Spanish shocker in the gothic mode; it reminds one a bit of The Devils. But it’s not quite as shocking as it needs to be and exploitation hounds might be disappointed by its lack of gore and sleaze. As with many of these Spanish gothics, there’s a fair amount of melodrama to wade through. But, its portrayal of the forces of order trying to keep down those who want freedom is fairly rich and it has some great lines, with my favorite being the drunken guard’s, “On my headstone, I want them to write, “He drank of life while they died.”

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